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The deadly superbug MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) strikes fear deep into the heart of hospital patients and their doctors. The bug, which is resistant to many antibiotics, has fallen prey to its kryptonite at last. The cure comes from a highly unlikely source.
This is what happens when an Anglo-Saxon scholar and a microbiologist at the University of Nottingham, UK, walk into a bar together. Okay, a bar probably wasn’t a factor in this experiment, but these two academics (Dr. Christina Lee and Freya Harrison, respectively) started discussing MRSA, and a theory began to brew.
Lee and Harrison wished to concoct a recipe from a leatherbound version of Bald’s Leechbook — an Old English medical text that sources back to the 9th century. The book contains many recipes for treatments and salves for “what are clearly bacterial infections, weeping wounds/sores, eye and throat infections, skin conditions such as erysipelas, leprosy and chest infections.” The chosen recipe, an “eyesalve,” claimed to heal a stye of the eye. Could the recipe also work to kill skin infections, especially ones caused by the MRSA superbug?
Here’s the relevant part of the recipe: “Take cropleek and garlic, of both equal quantities, pound them well together … take wine and bullocks gall, mix with the leek … let it stand nine days in the brass vessel …” The two scholars started cooking:
(1) They quickly sourced leeks and garlic in the hope that modern varieties would correspond with the ancient specimens;
(2) They had no problem finding ox gall in the form of cow’s bile salts at an agricultural supply store;
(3) They took a vague stab in the dark when selecting a vintage wine;
(4) They substituted glass bottles for brass vessels (for sterilization purposes).
(5) They combined all ingredients and left the mixture to stew for nine days, after which it turned into “a kind of loathsome, odorous slime.”
Lee and Harrison quickly found that the potion “was self-sterilizing. That was the first inkling that this crazy idea just might have some use.” After testing the recipe “on scraps of skin taken from mice infected with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus,” they found that the potion quickly killed off 90% of the bug. This is a greater success rate than traditional antibiotics on such infections.
The scientists still don’t know why this particular combination of ingredients worked to kill off the MRSA in the lab experiment. More experiments are needed, but these results are highly promising in the fight against antibiotic-resistant bugs.
You can see an informative video about the AncientBiotics Project here.